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Colombians make tracks on rail revival

By SERGIO HELD in Cajica, Colombia | China Daily | Updated: 2022-02-09 09:46
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With Chinese expertise tapped, more ventures seen likely in economic boost

China looms large in a plan by Colombia to revive its railway networks after decades of neglect.

Such a revival could significantly boost the economy, offering an affordable transport alternative to the 215,000 kilometers of roads now crossing the South American country, experts said.

They note that China can become a key partner in the efforts, with several Chinese companies already making their way to Colombia and some projects underway.

"Of the approximately 3,500 kilometers of railroads, 73 percent are inactive, abandoned," said Diego Dorado, a consultant on regional development and former deputy general territorial director of Colombia's National Planning Department.

"The used extension is concentrated in five corridors, two for private use and the other three under concession. All of these are dedicated exclusively to freight transportation, mostly from mining."

In late 2020, the Colombian government launched a Master Railway Plan to give new life to the railway network, making logistics and transportation cheaper and easier in a country with enormous potential to supply a variety of goods to international markets.

"Today we can say that 70 percent of the cargo that moves in Colombia, or a little more, is in road transportation. We need to diversify and complement it," Colombian President Ivan Duque said in November 2020. "We have a challenge, and it is the most demanding geographical challenge."

The important Pacific Ocean port of Buenaventura is a gateway for about 25 percent of the country's imports. As such, it is a key connector between Colombia and China.

Chinese company BYD, from Shenzhen, is bidding for work related to the Regional Caribbean Train that will connect Santa Marta, Barranquilla, and Cartagena, three important cities along the Colombian coast.

"China's interest in Colombia's railway development has been latent for several years. Important companies interested in projects in Colombia have started to arrive," Jaime Suarez, executive director of the Colombia-China Chamber of Investment and Commerce, said.

David Castrillon, research professor at the School of International Relations at Externado University of Colombia, believes that Chinese expertise in railways can add value to countries like Colombia.

"China is a recognized expert in railroad construction projects and other types of systems around them," Castrillon said.

Sign of confidence

BYD's decision to participate in the Colombian project is "a clear sign of confidence on the part of Chinese companies" in the Colombian market, he said.

A light train project connecting the capital Bogota with the western region that surrounds it is being developed by China Civil Engineering Construction, while an elevated train inside the city is being built by a consortium comprising China Harbour Engineering Company and Xi'an Metro Company.

"The development of rail transport in the country could be used to compensate for some of the major shortcomings of Colombian transport and connectivity," said Dorado.

China is becoming a key partner for Colombia in helping the latter overcome its lack of infrastructure. Bogota and Beijing are working together on broader projects to enhance the diplomatic and economic relationship.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.

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